Cutting Carbon And Keeping The Lights On

As if evidence was needed as to the imperative of dramatically cutting carbon emissions and promoting energy efficiency, the day after the Government published its much-anticipated Clean Growth Strategy, the European Environment Agency (EEA) published new figures on the impact of air pollution.

The EEA concluded that more than half a million people a year are dying prematurely across the continent as a consequence of air pollution. There’s little reaction you can give to such a figure than to describe it as absolutely terrifying, and a stark reminder of the need to cut emissions.

The scale of the problem has been evident for years, and the EEA’s figures are the latest in a slew of warnings about pollution levels. Taking London as but one example, Mayor Sadiq Khan issued a public warning for high pollution levels in September. And such is the scale of the problem that parts of the capital were found to have breached annual pollution levels. You might expect that to be the case, given the size of London, the number of people and the traffic on the roads. These annual levels were exceeded on 5 January 2017.

All of these warnings continually underline the importance of slashing carbon emissions, which requires the greater use of low-carbon technologies and adoption of energy efficiency measures such as those set out in the Clean Growth Strategy. And while critics have challenged the strategy as being aspirational and lacking firm targets or methods of evaluation, the basic logic of the need for clean growth is undeniable.

The decarbonisation of the economy requires fundamental changes, including greater energy efficiency within new and existing buildings as the strategy set out. It requires action to address the levels of pollution generated by vehicles, which includes promoting the use of electric vehicles (the popularity of which has increased staggeringly in recent years) and ensuring the infrastructure is in place to support such proliferation in the form of accessible charging points.

Inevitably, it also means further reducing the UK’s use of traditional forms of electricity generation and increasing our reliance on proven and developing forms of renewable generation. These are already at an all-time high, with National Grid revealing this summer has been the UK’s ‘greenest ever’ with 52 percent of power generated from low carbon sources. But there is considerably more that can be achieved.

The Government’s strategy committed £557 million to promoting developing technologies. But, just as electric vehicles need the infrastructure in place to support their increased usage, so do renewables need technologies to enable them to continually meet consumer and business needs.

The criticism levelled at renewable technologies for years has been they can’t meet consumer need if the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow. This is why numerous renewable installations – whether they’re large-scale solar or wind farms, or small installations for domestic use – incorporate batteries to store surplus energy for future use. And it’s why the UK will see the development of hundreds of mega-watts of larger scale battery farms in the coming years.

Battery storage was recognised as a need for the UK when the Government published its Industrial Strategy Green Paper earlier in the year. And electricity storage was also included in the Clean Growth Strategy with the commitment of £265 million of public investment in technologies to store electricity and also manage consumer demand.

The advantage of developing this large-scale storage capacity is that it enables the UK electricity grid to respond almost instantly to high levels of demand (as a very basic example, like when around ten million people turn their TVs on to see Bake Off). And it enables electricity generated from renewable sources to be stored and used when required and needed – like when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

The cost of this type of technology has fallen significantly in recent years, making it both more affordable and a more attractive option for investors. The consequence is that the UK is now building capacity needed to support the radical shift we’re seeing in where our electricity comes from – and in turn help reduce carbon emissions.

This isn’t a problem that will be solved overnight. As critics of the Clean Growth Strategy have suggested, its aspirations need to be realised in tangible and measurable action. But we should see it as a step in the right direction if it does promote greater energy efficiency, and allows far greater use of renewables, backed by the storage capacity those technologies will need.

Ian Larive is Investment Director at Low Carbon.